Ranters of Mow Cop

Ranters of Mow Cop

Wednesday, 22 April 2020

The figure of the child in contemporary evangelicalism

My book review on The figure of the child in contemporary evangelicalism by Anna Strhan, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2019, 232 pp., £55 (hardback), ISBN 9780198789611
 is just published...   

Greg Smith (2020) The figure of the child in contemporary evangelicalism,
Journal of Beliefs & Values, 41:2, 242-245,
DOI: 10.1080/13617672.2020.1740461

accessible here https://www.tandfonline.com/eprint/UCIZRHBJ92YXAHPWWFX4/full?target=10.1080/13617672.2020.1740461

or from here https://btcloud.bt.com/web/app/share/invite/gZq4rPXPnr

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Friday, 3 April 2020

Existential Risk and the Sabbath of the Land

There has yet to be a pandemic that is an existential risk to the human species. In the worst recorded one, the "Black Death" of the 14thC an estimate that about one-third of Europe's population died in the epidemic may be fairly accurate. The population in England in 1400 was perhaps half what it had been 100 years earlier. Even on the most pessimistic modelling and without effective measures to control the spread of infection, the current Covid-19 pandemic will have only minor effects on demography. With mathematical models predicting anything from 20,000 to 250,000 deaths in the UK directly attributable to the virus it is worth remembering that there are approximately 500,000 deaths a year in normal times from a variety of causes (see here for one analysis treating the outcome as no more than a blip in mortality rates). And here for a piece exploring the difficulty of data interpretation. Of course there is a risk that at some time in the future a more cataclysmic pandemic may sweep the globe; and other apocalyptic risks are available, from being struck by an asteroid, washed away by a tsunami, inundated by slowly rising sea levels or the extinction of pollinating insects and subsequent global famine.

For many of us, especially if we operate in the faith, community or small business sector the idea of "risk assessment" is at best a necessary evil, which we undertake grudgingly to stay within the law. At the other extreme insurance companies and epidemiologists have developed a highly abstract science for calculating and mitigating risk. The academic and public health community were fully aware of the risks associated with a viral pandemic for example in documents such as this freely available on the web. With international public health networks in place, and the unprecedented ease of global information sharing it can be argued that national leaders and policy makers should have been better informed, better prepared and quicker to to take appropriate action. However we are where we are, and one can only hope and pray that unprecedented measures will help the global community get back in control of the epidemic in months rather than years.

As individual human beings the vast majority of us are not very good at risk assessment of understanding probabilities. This often results in irrational behaviour, for example in my own minor terror of air travel, despite knowing no other mode of travel results in fewer casualties per passenger mile, while continuing the really dangerous habit of cycling on urban roads. The rumour mill of social media only exaggerates irrational fear, leading during the current pandemic to panic buying of pasta, hand sanistiser and toilet rolls. Nonetheless the Corona virus does present a real risk to every individual, and to those we love and cherish, which is beyond our personal control. For most of us it is a substantial probability of a miserable week or so of sickness, from which we will recover. Across the population we all have a small risk of really nasty virus, and for those of us who are older or suffering from underlying health conditions, poorer or working in the frontline in hospitals, the risk of dying is much increased. Sadly for some of us it will reduce "healthy life years", though in pure rational actuarial terms this will rarely be by more than the 10 or maybe 20 that any of retired folk like me might expect to survive. In the long term, of course we are all dead, and one thing the virus is doing is to make us aware of our own mortality, and even to consider and talk about the reality of death in ways we have been reluctant to do in ordinary time.

One would hope that Christians, especially as we prepare to celebrate Easter – though not in our familiar settings or practices are in a better place to cope than most. For people of faith are those who have taken a punt on the risk that this life is not the end. As people of hope we may be well place to offer significant and sacrificial compassionate service, we may be challenged to a deeper life of prayer yet as this blog from an Arab Christian points out "it is important to ask ourselves as Christians, "how thick is the veneer of our Christianity?" Can our faith withstand the test of fear, chaos and even the threat of death? " Despite attempts by some to tell the world what God is doing through the pandemic there are no easy theodicies – rather as Tom Wright argues it is mainly a season for lament.

From the point of view of governments the major risks can be summarised as loss of control, (or perhaps of the illusion of being in control), and then being held responsible for catastrophic failure of policy. The breakdown of health care systems at the peak of the epidemic, not simply that there will not be enough ventilators in Intensive care wards, but that medical staff will be laid low and the knock on effects for the regular stream of patients needing treatment for heart attacks, stroke or trauma are a nightmare for healthcare managers. Doubly so in the UK where one of the few "sacreds" shared across society is the NHS. The politicians must dread the risk to political and social stability as evidence of their incompetence might lead to panic behaviour, significant unrest and systemic breakdown of governance structures.

Economically the situation has already gone beyond being a risk; it is already a cataclysmic shock to world and national economies. Recovery, particularly in some sectors such as travel and leisure will take many years, if not decades, and within a capitalist framework further austerity, growing inequality and extreme poverty (with associated deterioration of health outcomes) seems inevitable. The emergency policy interventions of recent weeks, which would have seemed inconceivable at the start of the year, may be welcome and essential, but are largely unassessed risks of great magnitude. There is no wonder people are beginning to debate whether the radical international lock-downs are an over-reaction or "Should older Americans die to save the economy?"

The current pandemic is clearly a Kairos moment, when the whole world will need to draw breath and review our fundamental values. When in the light of widespread emerging self mobilisation of supportive community action Boris Johnson is forced to admit that there is indeed such a thing as society we may find hope of a pendulum swing away from neoliberal individualism, where risk is increasingly privatised, towards a politics of the common good. Luke Bretherton examines some of the ethical issues around this in this piece. Alan Rusbridger may be right to suggest that "amid our fear, we're rediscovering utopian hopes of a connected world". As pollution levels and carbon emissions have fallen drastically environmental benefits are already being observed, though we do not know if they will be sustained into the longer term. Despite punditry and predictions the future remains unclear, though there are almost certainly going to be some long term cultural and social transformations.

In the Hebrew Scriptures (2 Chronicles 36:21 ) the account of the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians concludes So the message of the LORD spoken through Jeremiah was fulfilled. The land finally enjoyed its Sabbath rest, lying desolate until the seventy years were fulfilled, just as the prophet had said.

Could perhaps this pandemic period lead to a similar Sabbath effect through which a greater human flourishing, and a respite from the desolation of God's good earth eventually emerge?

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